Elan Zafir is a four-times-a-year father. For nearly a decade he has been saying “hello,” “goodbye,” “I love you” and trying to teach his son how to become a young man in two-week stretches. Those meetings and partings at the airport weighed heavily on Zafir, a Washington-based actor. In 2016, he put words on paper about raising his boy long distance.
The result, “The Unaccompanied Minor,” is Zafir’s tour de force one-man show about becoming a man and raising a son who lives 2,000 miles away with his mother in a small town in Texas. It has a one-show remount on May 19 at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia in Fairfax as part of its performing art series.
It’s wildly physical as Zafir transforms himself from a quiet, bookish kid to a high school gang member, from judge and pleading parent in a courtroom custody battle to a madly racing driver late to pick up his son from the airport. The play digs into fraught father-son relationships, with Zafir’s Canadian father and Israeli stepfather, and with Zafir’s son, who he has watched grow up in fragments when they reunite four times a year. Even so, he reveals how deeply fatherhood, even from a distance, has changed him.
The one-time bartender is now a hardworking actor. He’s just come off a successful run, cast in nine consecutive plays on area stages including Mosaic Theatre, Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre and the Folger Theatre. Fans of Netflix’s “House of Cards” might have caught him, shaved head and tattoed body, as hardened prison inmate Gagik.
While the hour-long play is billed a comedy, there’s more to it than split-second character changes, funny accents — especially his Israeli one — and hair-raising, just-made-it encounters. In “The Unaccompanied Minor,” Zafir can be more than a familiar stranger to his son. Over the course of the play, Zafir throws himself all in, wrestling with his past and coming to terms with his role as a father, and with his distant father and stepfather.
“I want to be able to paint with my body. I want to put the whole thing out there,” he said about his highly physical and precise acting style.
“In writing this, I never thought it was going to make my relationship with anyone any better — not with my son or with my father,” Zafir said.
He noted that his own parents divorced when he was 2 and he remembers flying from Fort Lauderdale to Montreal in the summers to visit his dad. For Zafir, the inherent drama — and sadness — he experiences each time he picks up and drops off his son at the airport convinced him that he had a compelling story to dramatize.
And he acknowledged the challenges of raising a now-12-year-old. “I’ll asked him why he did something and he says, ‘Who are you to tell me what to do?’ ‘I’m your dad.’ [He says,] ‘I never see you.’ Then I’m like, ‘Look at my life, look what happened to me and my dad.’ He says, ‘All right. That’s way too much for me.’”
That’s how it is, Zafir said, parenting in spurts. “It’s a rollercoaster ride.”
Growing up in Florida, Zafir was sent to a Jewish day school by his mother and Israeli stepfather. “They weren’t Jewishly observant, but they were Jewish,” he said. “My father’s mom from Hungary lost two children in the Holocaust. My dad was born in 1948 and in 1956, during the Hungarian revolution, they left during the night, walked through the forest all the way to Czechoslovakia.”
“But my mom always lit candles,” he said. “They did their best with me to try to go to temple … Now I don’t go … I’m an actor; I work on Friday nights and Saturday matinees. But my identity is Jewish.”
Zafir came to Washington for his graduate degree in acting at the Shakespeare Theater Company’s Academy for Classical Acting and stayed. He lives in the Lamond Riggs neighborhood of the District with his wife and 18-month-old daughter. This new chapter of his life is not reflected in the show. Looking back — he lost his mother at 24 and spent his own childhood shuttling between Florida and Montreal — Zafir said he hopes people get a message from the messy life circumstances he portrays in “The Unaccompanied Minor.”
“I would say: Time is not something we have an overabundance of. I don’t know if it goes fast or slow, but the quality of time that you spend with the people you love is important,” he said. “And that quality time is precious, so get your hands on it when you can.”
“The Unaccompanied Minor,” by Elan Zafir; Sunday, May 19, 5 p.m.; Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, 8900 Little River Turnpike, Fairfax; $14-$18 The performance will be followed by a Q&A. Visit theunaccompaniedminor.brownpapertickets.com.